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an enemy of the people

12 october 2016

I've seen one production of An Enemy of the People, almost 45 years ago. My father directed that college production, starring a dynamic young actor named Jeff Carey as the title hero Dr. Stockmann. It was a remarkable show for those times, in the shadow of Vietnam and Watergate; it had been a remarkable show on Broadway in 1950 in a new version by Arthur Miller, during the height of McCarthyism; it continues to be a vibrant and timely play in an era of global warming. Realistically set in a small Norwegian town of the 1880s, topical enough, probably, in terms of local institutions and concerns, An Enemy of the People also proves "evergreen" in the way it addresses public vs. private welfare, jobs vs. the environment, press freedom vs. press responsibility, and personal vs. disinterested motives.

Arthur Miller says in his introduction that he streamlined and tightened Ibsen's play, and of course made its language colloquial mid-20th-century American. He calls his version a translation, not an adaptation. Penguin, in marketing the book to American readers in the 2010s, barely puts Ibsen's name on it, figuring perhaps that Marilyn Monroe's ex-husband would even now still be a bigger draw than some bearded Scandinavian. But though I know no Norwegian, I suspect that in this Enemy of the People we get the best of both worlds: Ibsen's ideas and plot design, supplemented by Miller's language and stagecraft. (Miller himself knew no Norwegian; he relied on a word-by-word rendering made by producer Lars Nordenson.)

An Enemy of the People is a talky play about civic policy (heck, the climactic scene is a town meeting). You wouldn't think it would exactly be Hedda Gabler in terms of emotional energy. Yet Ibsen is careful to give each character some point of conflict vis-à-vis each other character with whom he or she has much interaction. The characters, in particular Dr. Stockmann, at times seem unable to move, hemmed in by competing motives. In the end, Dr. Stockmann cuts through the Gordian knot of opposing interests and stands alone, trusting in himself and in science.

But not without self-doubt. Is he a good scientist? Does he believe results that show the town's mineral-water attractions are poisoned because he has vetted them properly, or because he's wishcasting? Does he envy his brother Peter, the pro-business-conservative, sweep-it-under-the-rug Mayor – or does Peter perhaps envy him? What obligations does Dr. Stockmann, beholden to the water concerns for his job, have to his wife and children?

Miller, in his introduction, worries about whether Dr. Stockmann is a proto-fascist. Ultimately he rejects this idea, perhaps while finessing it a bit in the translation. Dr. Stockmann makes an impassioned speech where he rejects the will of the majority by appealing to the truth – and to his own inherent ability to see the truth. Sounds like a cult of his own personality. On the other hand, either the water is poisoned or it isn't, and a popular vote isn't going to turn it from contaminated to clean.

I don't think Ibsen was fascist, either in terms of his career or even in terms of that one scene and speech. An Enemy of the People recalls Shakespeare's Coriolanus in pitting one awfully-sure-of-himself man against a fickle, easily-led population. But all Coriolanus has going for him is that he's more of a badass than the next guy. Badassery eventually meets its comeuppance at the hands of a bigger badass, as Coriolanus eventually learns. Knowledge is more stable, and Dr. Stockmann relies on knowledge. The problem he never solves is how to educate his fellow citizens.

Ibsen, Henrik. An Enemy of the People. [En folkefiende, 1882.] Adapted by Arthur Miller. 1950. New York: Penguin, 2015.